Leah Grayson: Age Sixteen.
“One-way ticket to wherever that bus is headed, please.” I emptied my life savings onto the counter at the booth. A whopping one hundred and twenty dollars, consisting of mostly coins and a few crumpled bills.
I had deliberately chosen the furthest destination that I could get to by bus. I gulped nervously, knowing that I didn’t have much time.
The attendant looked taken back. “Are you sure, honey?” She seemed reluctant to hand over the ticket through the gap in the glass.
She was a small brunette lady who looked like she was in her late forties. She had a golden band on her wedding finger and a pendant around her neck that had 'Best Mom' engraved on it. Her eyes drowned with pity as she took in my battered appearance. She was old enough to be my mom and probably had a son or daughter around my age.
“I’m sure. The further the better,” I replied, managing a strained smile. I’d never been so sure of anything in my whole life. There was nothing left for me in Orshore anymore. Mom and Dad were dead. They were killed by an intruder who broke into our home in the middle of the night. I’d been away at summer camp and came home to a crime scene.
My parents were the only family I had. I had no real friends. None that I was close to anyway. Mom and Dad kept pretty much to themselves, so there was no one else I could turn to for help. We weren’t even on first name terms with any of the neighbors.
The police involved child protective services and I was placed in emergency foster care, temporarily. A couple of days after that, one of the welfare officers informed me that I had a living relative called Frank. That he came forward after hearing what happened on the news.
I’d never met him before, nor had my parents ever spoken about him. I wasn’t aware that either of them had any siblings. They packed my things without even giving me a choice and told me that I would be moving back home with him.
One week was all it took for me to get my shit together and run for my life. Frank was granted legal guardianship over me. He got his claws on the house and was soon set to cash in on my parent's life insurance money.
I overheard Frank having a heated discussion over the phone with someone, making arrangements to trade me for money. The phone call was over before it even began, but I distinctly heard some guy yelling that I belonged to him before Frank cut him off. Some guy he called Mr. White. I called Frank out on this and let’s just say that it didn’t end too well for me.
Twenty four hours was how long it took for him to hit me the first time. Leaving me with a black eye and a split lip.
Long gone was the Leah who trusted adults to take care of her. That Leah Grayson died alongside her parents. Nobody had ever raised their voice to me before, let alone their fists. My mother was a gentle soul and my father was the epitome of a loving husband and father.
I’d decided that this Leah Grayson was going to start her new life as of today. I didn’t even care where I was headed. All I knew was that I wanted to put a million miles between me, that asshole Frank and whoever that creep, Mr. White was.
I grabbed my ticket and change, then boarded the bus to find a seat. There were only seven other passengers on board and most were elderly. A scruffy-looking guy hogged the back row of seats and was sprawled across them, his grimy jacket thrown over him as he slept. He looked like a drifter, not that I would’ve dared to ask him. That probably wouldn’t have gone down too well. He was just a guy who was down on his luck, the same as me.
I didn’t make eye contact with any of the other passengers, choosing to sit close to the driver to be on the safe side. I placed my bag on the seat beside me as a subtle hint that I didn’t want anyone sitting next to me. About an hour into the journey the driver cocked his head back to speak to me. “What’s a young girl like you doing traveling by yourself?”
“I’m not young, I’m eighteen,” I lied, trying to make myself seem older than I was, “I’m visiting family.” I prayed he bought it. I even crossed my fingers behind my back.
“Oh, I thought you might be in some kind of trouble.” There was concern in his voice. I wanted to ask what gave him that idea but then I remembered the state of my face. I had to be careful not to rouse any further suspicion, if he guessed my real age, he would stop the bus and call the cops for sure.
I tried as best as I could to keep my voice nonchalant. “No, just visiting.”
Please, please, don’t ask where.
My heart thumped haphazardly inside my chest like it had forgotten how to function. My left eye began twitching like crazy, something that always happened whenever I was nervous or told a lie.
“Well, you take care,” he threw the comment over his shoulder. “It’s not safe for a young girl like you to travel alone.”
“I’ll keep that in mind for next time, thanks,” I replied, sweetly.
Fidgeting with nerves, I struggled to occupy my restless mind. I checked my watch: it was ten forty-five. School would’ve contacted Frank by now. He would have to wait twenty-four hours before he could file a missing person report, so I knew I still had time to clear some distance.
I rested my head against the window, feeling the vibration from the bus against my right ear. The scenery whirled past my eyes in a blur, blending together in streaks of color until my lids grew heavy and I fell asleep. We stopped a couple of times to let some of the passengers off. As each passing hour flew by, my stomach growled in protest, forcing me to give in to my hunger.
The food I had stashed the night before was depleting fast. I wished that I hadn’t only packed candy bars like a five-year-old, but that was all I could risk taking with me without rousing Frank’s suspicions. The amount of sugar I had consumed made me feel nauseous, having not eaten anything substantial that morning for breakfast.
I wondered if Frank had tried to contact my phone. I thought about turning it on but then decided against it, just in case there was a way to track my location. It only served as a handheld computer anyway. Not that I had any credit on it to make a call, even if I did have friends who I could contact. I was more alone now than I had ever been and growing more anxious by the hour.
Further and further, into the countryside, we went, past mountain terrain and dense woodland areas. I spared a glance around the bus, hearing a loud snore from the back. The drifter had gone and in place of him was an elderly woman, fast asleep with her head lolling from side-to-side.
“Last stop, Forest Lake Ridge,” the driver announced, suddenly.
Forest Lake, huh? I looked through the windows squinting my eyes, seeing nothing but trees either side. Shit, this was the last stop. I hoped there was a town or something and not just wilderness for miles.
I felt a hand apply pressure on my shoulder from behind me, causing me to turn round quickly. “Whoa!” I flinched away.
“I didn’t mean to startle you, sweetie,” the old woman spoke. Her wrinkled face beamed as she smiled. I blinked back the shock as I took in her appearance. She looked as if she was dressed to go to a funeral, wearing a black cashmere overcoat and matching hat. It was one of those pretty hats that had a veil of lace that just about covered her eyes.
“What part of the ridge you heading to? Hawcroft?” As she leaned closer towards me, her pupils flared wide. “Or Stonevale.”
There was something compelling about the tone of her voice and suddenly, Stonevale was the place I needed to be.
“Until now I wasn’t sure,” I spoke in a hushed tone so that the driver couldn’t hear. “What’s in Stonevale?” I asked her, now that my curiosity had piqued.
Her eyes were the color of warm melted chocolate, smiling back into mine as she spoke, “Your future, Leah. You were only a baby when your parent’s left with you.” She tapped my hand that I gripped the back of my chair with. Her touch was surprisingly warm but I gasped and withdrew it as if burned by the sudden contact.
An image flashed in front of my eyes that was gone in an instant. A boy with chestnut brown hair, gazing down into the cradle where I slumbered. He was standing in between my parents, with my father's arm draped lazily across his shoulder.
Was that a memory? I stared at her in bewilderment, rubbing my hand. “The hell was that?” I muttered through shock.
What the hell did she mean? We had always lived in Orshore. I would’ve considered her batshit crazy but she knew my name and I know for certain that I hadn’t given it.
The bus stopped suddenly causing me to snap my head forward. The doors folded to the side with a mechanical hiss.
I stood up, grabbed my bag, then turned to confront her but all I was faced with were empty seats. My eyes darted all around the bus, searching for her. “Hey!” I spun around to the driver who waited patiently for me to leave. “Where did she go?” I pointed in the direction of the seat behind mine.
He shrugged, scrunching his brows with confusion. “Who?”
“The old woman that was just here. She was right here talking to me just now,” I ranted in borderline hysterics. His eyes flared wide as he spluttered his response, “Honey, you have been the only passenger on this bus for the last thirty miles.” He cocked an eyebrow, probably wondering if I was tripping out on drugs or something.
Embarrassment flushed my face red hot. I realized how insane I must have sounded. Then I remembered that I couldn’t draw too much attention to myself if I wanted to vanish without a trace. I decided to drop the subject and hoped that he would forget ever seeing me.
“Uh, um, never mind.” I gathered my things and stepped off the bus. Needless to say, I was completely freaked out. I felt like the kid in the sixth sense movie. Only, I felt her tap me twice, so I knew she was real and that I wasn’t seeing dead people.
The sky above was just about visible through the canopy of branches, forming a tunnel of foliage along the road. Through the mosaic of greenery, I could see a mixture of majestic orange and flame red, a clear sign that it was almost sundown. Reality gave me a harsh slap to the face, reminding me of my predicament. I was homeless, destitute, and soon the cops would be out searching for me.
The sky was turning that hazy shade of red it usually goes when the sun starts to set. It dawned on me that I was now homeless, broke and very much alone. I hadn’t really thought this through.
The bus pulled away, revealing a sign on the opposite side of the road. I crossed over to get a better look. There was no way I could risk wandering the woods all night long. Anything could stumble across me and attack me or worse, I could end up being murdered.
The sign revealed directions to two nearby towns, much to my relief. Hawcroft and Stonevale. The mystery woman's words filtered through my mind once again and I felt myself being drawn towards Stonevale. The place she said my parents and I had once lived. There was every chance she was an hallucination, the product of eating way too much candy but I found myself acting on blind faith. Because honestly... What other choice did I have?